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ICYMI: Squamish business beat: From wildfire tragedy to innovation—FireSwarm Solutions' journey

Local startup developing drone-swarming software to combat wildfires more effectively in challenging conditions.

Though they didn't win the grand prize, the folks behind a Squamish startup have plenty to celebrate after making the final six in the Accelerate Okanagan 2024 Angel Summit contest.

The summit involves an eight-week program that ends with a $195,000 investment in one of the enrolled companies.

At the final event on May 23, the finalist companies, including Squamish’s FireSwarm Solutions, made their pitch to the assembled angel investors.

Behind the 10-month-old FireSwarm are longtime Squamish locals Melanie Bitner, Alex Deslauriers and David Thahn as the company's founders.

What's the product? 

Picture heavy-lift drones bucketing over an area during a wildfire at times when others, such as manned helicopters and planes, can't. This may be at night or during heavier smoke.

The Squamish company is developing proprietary Swarm software that will automate swarms of heavy-lift drones carrying small- to medium-sized Bambi Buckets (lightweight, strong, flexible firefighting buckets).

The team is also developing the logistics required to operate those drones in the vicinity of fire.

"So, we want to be an end-to-end solution," Bitner said.

The company aims to be actively suppressing fires by the 2025 fire season.

But first, the team has been talking with government leaders and is working with Transport Canada to get regulatory approval.

In addition to currently seeking seed funding, the company also aims to bring in heavy-lift drones for pilot projects and further testing in the fall of this year.

From the ashes

The idea for FireSwarm arose, literally from the ashes of a wildfire.

Bitner and Deslauriers are not only business partners but also life partners. 

Last August, they lost their secondary home in Gun Lake, and Bitner's father lost his primary residence to wildfire.

"My family has been there since the 1930s. The properties were originally my grandfather's, everything on them was built by him and my grandmother. So, [it's] all of our history," Bitner said.

"It's been devastating for our family personally. And then obviously, the 56 neighbours who lost theirs — many of them have been multi-generational friends and neighbours. So, it's a very small, tight-knit community. It's been super hard."

Bitner said that when the wildfire first started in mid-July, it was about 20 kilometres away. There was a lot of fire suppression in the area, including water bombers and helicopters, working to keep the fire at bay.

"We thought this was going to be out in no time," she said.

But as fires ramped up elsewhere in the province, there weren't enough aerial assets to keep the Gun Lake fire under control.

"So, over the month, we watched it get closer and closer," Bitner recalled.

Her father evacuated a few weeks before the homes were lost.

The family watched the fire’s progress anxiously on live cams from afar until it reached their homes on Aug. 18.

"The challenging part, psychologically, was that we watched the fire come down over eight hours in the evening. And at 4:30 or five in the morning, we watched everything explode."

This devastating experience was the catalyst for the creation of FireSwarm Solutions.

Deslauriers is an aerospace engineer and certified airline-rated pilot, so he began thinking about how to fill the gap when aerial assets are unable to fight wildfires.  

"He thought to himself, what could happen in the evening when the aerial fire support ... is not allowed to fly because of safety to human life. So, that was generally the genesis of the idea," Bitner said.

"Currently, aerial assets are grounded in low visibility. They're grounded when there's heavy smoke. They're grounded in the evening hours. So, we're losing half a day to fight fire. And we're pretty sure that if a solution had been available in the evening, we wouldn't have lost our property or would have been able to save 56 lakefront properties."

Bitner noted that fellow founder Thahn has had his own close calls with wildfire as a resident of Paradise Valley and has served as a BC Wildfire Service fire warden.

Future growth

Of the Accelerate Okanagan contest, Bitner said it confirmed the company is on the right track.

"There was just a lot of excitement around our fledgling business," she said.

"We have a super competent and passionate team. A lot of them have just been working for free on their free hours. And we're starting to move into many of them being contracted part-time and even full-time."

The company is currently seeking a chief drone pilot and regulatory affairs lead.

Those interested can apply via the FireSwarm website.

With files from Kirk Penton/Castanet

'Squamish business beat' is a series that arose from feedback from locals who wanted to see more business-related news. With this beat, we cover brand-new, independent business openings and closings, among other business-related topics, as our time and resources allow. To be considered for this series, please email [email protected].